“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

16 November 2015

On ideology and the denial of Islamic terror

An ideology is above all a system of belief into which everything must fit and that therefore assumes a sort of ultimate, absolute knowledge

This attachment to absolute, over-arching knowledge is why adherents so easily slip into authoritarian thought and behaviour. After all, if you know the core truth or the root causes of what is going on, actual truths presenting themselves to you in reality are of relatively little importance; indeed it is surely right to ignore them and concentrate on the more important underlying truth – even (and perhaps especially) if it contradicts what you can see and hear in reality.

From liberal-left practitioners, we can perhaps see this latter tendency most obviously in the reaction to terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam like those in Paris on Friday night. 

The cry goes out that this phenomenon 'is nothing to do with Islam’ or 'has nothing to do with religion’ even when the killers keenly and openly justify their actions in terms of Islam. This is the most extraordinary double-think you might say, or else simple downright lies. 

But it makes perfect sense in terms of ideology, for in ideology the actual truth is subservient to the real, underlying truth. In this way it commands what ‘is’, so Islamic terrorism ‘is’ nothing to do with Islam, even when it quite patently is something to do with it - albeit not everything.

RIP to all the victims of the attacks in Paris and thoughts go out to everyone directly affected by them. Maurice Duruflé's 'Requiem' here is a lovely piece of work, doing what the best music does in these situations and words alone cannot.

 Maurice Duruflé's 'Requiem' - in seven parts here, but it's the best recording I've found on Youtube. To open in a new window, click here.

3 October 2015

A Symphony for the Labour Party (Vaughan Williams’ 6th)

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his 6th Symphony partly in reaction to the land mine that fell on the Café de Paris in London during the Second World War, a bomb which killed Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and members of his West Indian Dance Band Orchestra who were performing there.

Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 6, played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington
Click here to create a new window for the video.

In a reference to the victims of that tragedy of war we hear in the symphony’s third movement the snaky, sinuous but ethereal sound of a saxophone backed up with a pulsing jazz beat. But it is framed by a piece which is tumultuous and angry, broken with a few moments of introspection and a short window of radiant beauty towards the end of the first movement. The fourth and final movement rounds the symphony off with a feeling of drifting and desolation, the strings evoking a gasping, uneven breath dying out to nothingness.

For me, it is a symphony for the Labour Party right now.

The piece, played with marvellous visceral energy in this version by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, starts off furiously with great forces crashing and banging against one another. The way I am hearing it now referring to Labour, this first movement depicts the hard left busting in, bringing irresistible hard-driving momentum and completely overwhelming the Blairite New Labour and Brownite tendencies in the leadership race. A beautiful melancholic melody briefly pulls us away, offering a pause for breath and some clarity. But it soon resigns itself to defeat, submitting to the more powerful forces.

The second movement (starting at 8.10) seems to be where we are now: adjusting and adapting to the new reality: a place full of edginess and foreboding but still ticking along with a repeated rat-a-tat to keep us grounded. This ebbs and flows until coming to a head with a great collision (perhaps with the electorate next year?), marked by a fusillade of noise which then declines into quiet distress.

The third movement (starting at 17.18) sees a new push with renewed fury and energy, but offering little joy or solace except for the ethereal saxophone solos suggesting a different and better world that could have been. After a brief lull it breaks out into a relentless, crashing, compulsive tumult of noise. But this soon breaks down, giving way to the final movement, the Epilogue.

At the time when the symphony was released to the world in 1948 (and it was played live more than a hundred times within two years), some critics interpreted this eerie finale as like wandering in the ruins of a nuclear holocaust. Vaughan Williams himself rejected these interpretations, quoting Prospero’s words from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

In those terms it evokes what some Labour people were saying about party unity during the Ed Miliband years: ‘the quietness of the grave’.

I’m not one for making prophecies, but the symphony seems to have a particular resonance at the moment.

It's like the first movement has happened, the second is happening now and the angry clashes of the third will follow sooner or later when the resurgent hard left finds its way blocked and lashes out in a final confrontation against challengers and critics.

The challenge for those who see disaster ahead is to get into a position where they can win that confrontation and prevent this symphony’s bleak final movement coming to pass.  Without some sort of major change and intervention, it surely will though. The old ways do not work anymore, if they ever did indeed without the charisma and flawed vision of Tony Blair.

From the ‘Blue Labour’ or ‘One Nation Labour’ tendency, Jon Cruddas has been busy producing some fascinating analysis on the last election and what it means for Labour. Frank Field has also been getting out there, pushing his prescient but unpopular messages (with the Labour tribe) about the importance of national borders in the ultra-globalised environment in which we find ourselves (and also latterly on tax credits).

From the more mainstream centrist wing of Labour, Luke Akehurst has been doing sterling work promoting the ‘Labour First’ grouping as a countervailing force to the Corbynistas, with new deputy leader Tom Watson and leadership candidate Yvette Cooper notable attendees at its meeting during the Brighton conference.

We shall see what happens. Jeremy Corbyn has a huge mandate from members and supporters that should be respected. It could easily break down though, especially if and when election results go against Labour next May and the unions decide it’s time to be more realistic. Whether a reversion to a new version of the old status quo will prove to be the way forward remains to be seen.

Personally, I have serious doubts and am more interested in what the likes of Cruddas and Field have to say. However, as we can hear in the 6th Symphony featured here, a nice tune counts for little against brute political force.

For more on Vaughan Williams and his music, have a look at the companion piece to this article: ‘Vaughan Williams: a British music for the world’.

Vaughan Williams: a British music for the world

Ralph Vaughan Williams is perhaps Britain’s greatest ever classical composer, but he remains something of an outsider in the world of classical music. His tunes are perhaps a little too tuneful, lowering the tone by appealing rather too readily to those uninitiated into what one should like and value.

All the more reason to love and value him and his music I say.

The companion piece to this one focused on Vaughan Williams’ 6th Symphony, a furious piece which, for me, evokes the current travails of the Labour Party and wider left in Britain. I was going to add a few lines to that piece suggesting some more tunes of Vaughan Williams that readers might like to check out. But those few lines became a few paragraphs and then several paragraphs. So here we are...

The first thing I wanted to do was showcase music of a different character to the 6th Symphony. The 6th is probably my favourite of Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, at least in that version, but it is by no means typical. 

A good alternative place to start is the ‘London’ Symphony, which offers a wonderful tableau of Britain's capital city immediately before the First World War. It still has great resonance today – from the hustle and bustle of the first movement to the beautiful second movement and depictions of the poor and unemployed in the last. Also in the years before World War One, Vaughan Williams, a committed socialist, wrote his most loved shorter pieces: the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending (the latter completed after the war and evoking the sound of freedom – delicate, fragile and precious).

Normally you would advise people not to check under the line for comments on videos and articles. The opposite is the case with Vaughan Williams; scroll downwards from each of these videos and you will find a cascade of love and appreciation, both for the music and for those who lovingly compile images to go with it - and not just from England or Britain but from all over the world.

The music that people love and appreciate mirrors the person. By all accounts Vaughan Williams was a generous, ebullient and humorous man, and also someone who was prepared to commit himself. In his forties, he volunteered for military service in the First World War when he wasn’t required to and served as a stretcher bearer on the Somme. His ‘Pastoral’ Symphony written following the war reflects on that time; a reserved, enigmatic piece, it finally breaks down during the final movement (which starts at 24.20 on that link and at 27.40 on this live version from the Proms, featuring, unusually, a male soloist). He lost many good friends during that war, including fellow composers.

But during the Second World War and into his seventies, Vaughan Williams did a different sort of war work, composing music for films including 49th Parallel, a 1941 picture intended to draw support from the United States when the US was still officially neutral. In 1943, he released his 5th Symphony, for many people his best, including the beautiful third movement, the Romanza.

Despite the crashing brutality of the 6th Symphony and the 4th Symphony, which he composed in the 1930s while Hitler was gaining prominence, it is principally beauty and sweetness that marks out Vaughan Williams’ contribution to British and world music. So much of that comes from the folk songs and poetry that he sought out (often over lashings of ale), as found in the lullaby-like Welsh hymn Rhosymedre, the English Folk Song Suite, the Norfolk Rhapsodies, including No. 2 here and also his many choral works, including adaptations of George Herbert’s ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ and the Scottish Burns song Ca’ The Yowes.

I am still discovering these wonderful works for myself: an ongoing joy and pleasure. I hope others feel the same. But I also hope Vaughan Williams’ music and that of others might help to inform our politics, by showing elements of ourselves to ourselves – elements that we have maybe not known before but would like to preserve and treasure (as Vaughan Williams himself looked to do with what he discovered).

Also, an important point from Vaughan Williams himself: just because I love and write about this music, that doesn’t mean it's mine. It's for anyone and everyone to love and enjoy and interpret as they like.

29 September 2015

On Labour – and the politics of ‘representation’

One of the curious things about this curious Labour Party conference for me looking from the outside has been the self-congratulation on display.

The first thing I saw when I switched on BBC Parliament on Monday was a local party delegate from North London boasting about beating the Lib Dems during the last election, praising how amazing everyone was and saying what a terrible state the economy is in due to austerity.

(i.e. ‘We’re great and right, that lot the public preferred over us are wicked and evil’, and ergo said public – except for the righteous denizens of North London – are wicked and evil too).

That’s maybe a bit harsh; after all you can’t expect ‘hardworking’ ordinary Labour folk to turn up to a conference in an expensive town like Brighton to moan and be negative and have a crap time telling each other how deluded they are. Nevertheless, the self-congratulation looks a bit off given Labour’s successive election defeats to a Conservative Party which is neither liked nor popular.

There was another little instance of this sort of thing I spotted on Twitter that I felt worth pointing out, for what it shows about our attitudes to the issue of ‘representation’ and democracy. This breezy standard-issue tweet – admittedly from someone of the old New Labour Progress wing of the party (which is now out in the cold) – seems to shine a light on some of our problems.

There are a few things I'd like to note here.

  • There is nowt wrong with an all-women panel, not least when the topic of conversation is pregnancy.
  • But praising an all-women panel for being an all-women panel means that the presence of a single male of human species on the panel would make it unpraiseworthy; indeed it would be a bad thing.
  • The tweet is about representation, primarily on panels of speakers at events. That representation is provided through identity in terms of someone’s fixed properties – in this case gender but it could also be via skin colour, religion or even sexuality. So in this photo for example we can see 100% women’s representation but 0% ‘BME’ (black and minority ethnic) representation.
  • A small point, but a pet gripe of mine: the use of ‘fab’. This is all over the place in Labour and seems to me emblematic of our transition to a party of middle class progressives who love telling each other how ‘fab’ they are.
  • I’ve nowt against Anna Phillips (I don’t even know her) and feel a bit bad about deconstructing and criticising her tweet; however it does show up these things rather well.

The account of representation we can see here is becoming ubiquitous in Labour and wider left-wing/liberal circles.  It can be quite difficult to get your head around its negative aspects because there is a basic goodness and decency in it – that women should be ‘represented’ in Parliament and professions like the media (two areas of particular interest to the activists who campaign about this stuff) is completely fair and right.

But it’s worth pointing out that this is a particular form of representation we are talking about, and what’s more it’s an alternative to the democratic form of representation – even though the campaigners and the institutions that support them, including remarkably the Electoral Reform Society – maintain that their version is vital to a healthy democracy.

The difference comes in choice, and whether those represented have any. Representation according to gender, skin colour etc is fixed, just like those properties are fixed for the most part. It flows automatically. The person doing the representing represents the person represented whether the person represented likes it or not. In the case highlighted above four female panellists are representing women, whatever their views are and whatever the individual or aggregated views of women. Democratic representation by contrast provides choice. The represented themselves decide who should represent them, though who gets the gig is normally dependent not on whether you or I or anyone else votes for them, but rather that they get the most votes.

The first form of representation is top-down and centralised while the second creates a category of person we might call ‘the voter’ who makes the decision of who represents them rather than being dictated to. They are fundamentally different kinds, and in this light the centralised form looks like something of a self-contradiction, for it quite obviously fails to provide any connection between represented and representing other than the fixed property of gender. (But that connection is more or less unbreakable, which is what provides identity politics with its power).

This sort of politics is now rife at the centre of the Labour Party as we could see from the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet appointments. Rather than worrying about Corbyn’s politics and the company he keeps, the lightning rod of dissatisfaction was provided by the lack of women shadowing the four so-called major offices of state - PM, Deputy, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. As it happened, Corbyn stuck to the pledge he had always made to have a gender-balanced Shadow team, and indeed appointed a majority of women to it, including in the crucial Health and Education briefs.

So it was maybe a storm in a teacup. But the anger was real, and it was widespread enough in the upper ranks of Labour to lead the news. This is what we are most concerned about nowadays: it is not so much about what you do or the way that you do it, as who you are.

But who you are is not the whole story of course. Your identity is not enough for you to represent anyone, whether on a panel or in a candidate selection contest or an election. There must be some means of differentiation. Someone must choose who will represent and who will not.

This is the crucial point which remains hidden when people tell this story about representation: that it is built on someone else or other people deciding, not you. The conference event speaking panel provides the model for this process. The four speakers and chair do not turn up randomly; they are chosen by some people somewhere, but crucially this process of choosing is hidden from view from those who turn up and listen to them, or who will be represented by them. For the plebs on the ground, they simply appear.

I think the overwhelming enthusiasm for this version of representation tells us a lot about the Labour Party and the wider left at the moment. At a very basic level it shows a lack of faith in people deciding for themselves who shall represent them. We prefer to let a backroom committee or commission or administrator decide on their behalf. This puts choice in the hands of those get appointed to these positions, thereby favouring those who get favoured within the existing bureaucracy of existing institutions. In that sense it is a conservative practice, and in Labour it means the activists and campaigners themselves, for whom this narrative of representation manages to unite the holy trinity of group interest, general interest and self-interest.

This may be a micro-phenomenon that doesn’t show up in lights and make easy headlines, but it is everywhere now. Moreover, I think it is important that we are so keen on this alternative form of representation at a time when the democratic form isn’t working so well for us. It offers a great opportunity for us to talk self-righteously about securing better representation and boast about great we are while completely bypassing the voters.